09/20/2014 12:24 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Four Key Ingredients in the Recipe for Creativity

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Everyone has untapped potential in some creative field. Yet some individuals -- Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs -- have far more of it than others. Apart from genes, there are at least three key environmental factors that affect creative accomplishments.

Genes and Personality

A large number of fiction writers produce stories in English today, but it is doubtful that any of them can match the accomplishments of William Shakespeare. His plays have certainly stood the test of time and are more widely performed today than those of any other author. Shakespeare also contributed hundreds of new words to the English language, a feat unmatched by anyone else.

Scholars have puzzled for centuries over the causes of such unusual creativity, and conventional wisdom today suggests that there are at least four key ingredients. The first pillar of creativity is having the right genes.

Some people are born with greater prospects of being creative than others are, although the precise biological mechanisms remain murky. Like many other personality traits, creativity is genetically heritable, with genes accounting for a fifth of individual differences in twin studies.

In tests of creativity, a person scores high if they make a lot of unusual associations, by coming up with atypical uses for familiar objects, such as filing one's nails with a brick, or using it as a mallet. Such ideas are referred to as divergent thinking because they differ from more humdrum notions of what a brick is for.

Being intelligent enough to learn to read and write is essential for being a distinguished writer, and the same is true of mastering basic techniques in other arts. Intelligence (i.e., IQ) plays a surprisingly small part in creativity, however, as revealed in the Terman longitudinal study of intellectually gifted youth. These individuals grew up to be highly successful in education and got good jobs but were shockingly mediocre in the creativity department, producing neither books nor inventions. In addition to genes that somehow facilitate divergent thinking, there are no fewer than three critical environmental influences.

Three Environmental Pillars of Creativity

The second pillar of creativity is the childhood environment, and living in an affluent home is no advantage, as illustrated by the many distinguished writers who grew up in abject poverty, such as Dickens and James Joyce.

Creativity is enhanced by personal tragedies, such as the premature death of a parent -- events that are disruptive of education and can actually reduce intelligence. Children often develop a rich imaginative world as an escape from such tragedies. (Such stress also contributes to psychological problems, helping explain why creative people are so vulnerable to mental illness.)

The third pillar of creativity is political background. Creative people often find themselves outsiders, whether as members of ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants, or gay people. (Being gay in the realm of heterosexuals is like being an immigrant.) In the U.S. immigrants are seven times more likely to excel in creative pursuits than are people whose families have been here for generations.

In Shakespeare's case, his prominent family was caught up in a religious conflict exacerbated by changes in the religion of the reigning monarch and may have gone into hiding to escape the threat of summary execution. Being an outsider forces people to see the world differently from the mainstream, and that oblique perspective favors creative thinking.

The fourth pillar of creativity involves being at the right place at the right time. Renaissance Florence was a good place to live if you wanted to be a painter or sculptor, because the Medici family generously patronized these arts as a way of projecting their own power, thereby attracting ambitious artists. Moreover, the presence of successful artists meant that apprentices had a good opportunity to learn from the masters. Shakespeare's writing talent was also nurtured by joining a talented group of actor/writers, and he could not have written his plays had he remained in Stratford-on-Avon.

Although every person has some spark of creativity that they ought to cultivate, most of us are not going to set the world on fire with our creative products. Now we know why. That doesn't soften the blow to our pride, but it does provide us with four comforting excuses:

  • I don't have the genes for it.
  • My parents ruined my creativity by staying married and alive and failing to emigrate.
  • Alas, I am a member of a not-discriminated-against majority.
  • If only I had made it to Silicon Valley in the early 1980s!